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YOU can’t beat the elation that comes with conquering the summit of a mountain following the insanity of a long climb.

Marangu at 1400m

I took the five day option for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – the riskiest option where altitude is gained very quickly. On the first day my guide Jaseri told us “pole pole” – Swahili for “take it slowly”. Although the trail was a high quality and a gentle grade, we had to hike very slowly in order to minimise the chances of developing altitude sickness.

Everyone else in my group was on Diamox, a drug that is supposed to minimise the chances of getting altitude sickness. I was on gingko biloba, a natural medicine that assists in providing oxygen to the brain without the side effects of taking drugs. With increased altitude the air thins, reducing your lungs’ capacity to take in oxygen and deliver it to the brain.

Hiking through the forest on the first day
Hiking through the forest at 2000m

The first day took us from the top end of Marangu Village at 1900 metres above sea level to Mandara Huts, at 2700 metres. The trail ascended through the thick cloud forest perpetually enshrouded by cloud that ringed the mountain.

The A-framed huts were in a small grassy clearing near the top of the cloud forest. We stopped there to unpack before heading for a short walk further up the mountain. Within a hundred metres the forest cleared to heathland scrub. A few minutes later we reached Maundi Crater, as far as daywalkers venture. This was the first of many small volcanic craters on the mountain.

Forest near Mandara
Forest near Mandara at 2600m

Mount Kilimanjaro is a large volcanic mountain created from the splitting of the plates in the Rift Valley. Africa is in the process of being split in half, each part to become a separate continent in its own right. The trail I was following ascended the length of the volcano where the continent had been ripped apart. Maundi Crater was one of the many craters on the mountain. This one was filled with grass with scrub growing around the rim. We walked through the middle of the crater and headed back to Mandara Huts for the night.

Scrub above Mandara
Scrub above Mandara at 2800m

The following morning dawned bright and clear, but it was rather cold. Following breakfast we packed up and continued our trek ascending through the heathland scrub. Eventually this gave way to low scrub allowing us a view across the vast moderate slopes of the mountain. Thick cloud had covered the sky at around 4500 metres above sea level, denying any view of the higher reaches of the mountain.

Fortunately the trail remained in very good condition as we continued our ascent. The heathland we hiked through was a sky island, named because it was completely isolated from the rest of Africa allowing some of the vegetation here to be unique to this mountain.

Heathland near Horombo
Heathland near Horombo at 3500m

The air was getting thinner with the increasing altitude. Fortunately we had porters carrying most of our gear. We each had a small daypack to carry our lunch and cameras – all of us except the youngest guy in our group who insisted on carrying a full backpack all the way to the base camp. He was very cocky, and deep down the rest of us knew that if anyone wasn’t going to reach the summit, it will be him.

Eventually we were high enough to be enveloped by the descending cloud, the view now enshrouded by thick mist. Cold rain began to fall but eventually cleared just as we came in sight of the Horombo Huts.

Brilliant night sky at Horombo
Brilliant night sky at Horombo at 3720m

At 3720 metres above sea level, Horombo Huts was the largest accommodation settlement on the mountain. Here all the climbers following the main route stay. Climbers taking the six day option stay here for two nights to acclimatise. Climbers returning off the summit stay here for a night on the way back to Marangu the next day. There was a hive of activity as we settled in for the night. The clouds cleared providing spectacular views of the starry sky above and of the illuminated villages below.

The ground outside the huts was solid frozen with a thick frost when I woke up the next morning. 1000 metres of altitude gain had significantly cooled the air temperature. The sky was clear but the sun hadn’t risen above Mawenzi Peak yet. The peak is the third highest in Africa, towering to 5100 metres above sea level. For the first time I could also see the summit of Kibo Peak – the top of the mountain at 5895 metres above sea level. I was already very high up, but I still had 2100 metres to climb to reach the top in less than 24 hours’ time.

Zebra Rocks
Zebra Rocks at 4000m

We left Horombo at around 8:00 in the morning. Frost still covered the ground as we ascended the route towards Mawenzi Peak. It was a long slow climb before reaching a rock formation called The Zebra at around 4100 metres above sea level. Here we stopped for a while looking at the rock formation in amongst the many cairns before pressing on towards the saddle from where the Mawenzi Peak climb commenced from.

We stopped just past the junction at a place where we could see across a very wide saddle towards Kibo Peak. Cloud covered much of the peak but we could see the lower slopes of it, including the base camp hut at Kibo where we were heading towards. It looked deceptively close from here, but it was still a good four hours away.

Mysterious Mawenzi Peak
Mysterious Mawenzi Peak from 4200m

Since leaving Horombo, the vegetation has become sparser. Here on the saddle there was no more than some grasses and some everlasting daisies. It was otherwise too cold for anything to survive. To my surprise there was a raven and another small bird joining us for lunch. No doubt many groups stopped here for lunch. Otherwise the pickings would be incredibly slim up here.

After lunch we descended the gentle slope down to the plateau that spanned between the two main peaks. Thick cloud was banking along the side of the plateau, but wasn’t enclosing us. The vegetation completely disappeared leaving a barren desert of rocks and regolith. The reddish rock had a distinctive Martian look to it. Large boulders from ancient eruptions were scattered amongst the brightly coloured rock.

Martian desert on the plateau
Martian desert on the plateau at 4550m

Hour after hour we slowly walked across the plateau until eventually reaching a junction where the main trail from Horombo met our trail. This was just short of a group of large boulders that marked the start of the ascent of Kibo Peak. After a brief stop at what must be the grottiest toilet on the planet, we started the ascent towards Kibo Hut. The slope of the trail was moderate, but at over four and a half kilometres above sea level, it was very tough going. The young fellow in our group with the full backpack was still going strong and the rest of us were now thinking that perhaps he will make the summit after all.

After what seemed like an eternity we reached the huts that would be our base camp at 4820 metres above sea level. At this altitude the air was freezing, even though we were just a couple of degrees latitude off the equator. Here we stopped for a very early dinner before heading to bed whilst it was still light.

It was a deathly cold minus ten degrees when I awoke at around 10:30. Slowly our group lethargically got up and made final preparations for the final ascent.

The mountain at midnight
The mountain from Kibo (4820m) at midnight

We departed Kibo huts at midnight, following the trail of head lights up the scree slope. The trail switchbacking the rubble was a moderate climb by any standards, but at this altitude it was very difficult. I felt very nauseous, but fortunately had some tablets that quickly resolved that problem.

The slope continued to steepen as we ascended above 5000 metres in the darkness of night.

One of the ladies in my group gave up, wanting to turn around and head back. One of the assistant guides started to return down the mountain with her, but quickly talked her into keeping on going. They turned around and caught up with the rest of us.

Reaching Gilman's Point at the crater rim
Reaching Gilman's Point at 5681m

The mountain was deathly silent. There was not a breath of wind. The only sound I could hear was the crunching of boots against the icy rubble of the scree slope as we continued to ascend.

Finally we reached the edge of the main crater at Gilman’s Point now over 5600 metres above sea level. One of the guys in the group got severe altitude sickness and needed to be taken down quickly. The rest of us continued walking around the crater rim. Thankfully the slope was gentle.

Towards the dawn at 5750m

At some point the sky began to lighten. I could see several glaciers draped over the side of the mountain. A few decades ago the entire mountain was covered in ice cap. The climate change due to coming out of a mini-ice age has caused the ice cap to retreat to just a few remaining glaciers. Their tops were flat but their sides were vertical dropping to the dark regolith that heated with the daily sunlight to melt the 11,000 year old ice. Scientists say within twenty years these glaciers will be gone forever until the next ice age.

Inside the crater

The sky was bright enough now for a clear view into the large wide crater. Here at five and a half kilometres above sea level it seemed enormous. It was a depression flanked with cliffs on all sides, completely barren rock apart from a few small snow drifts from a recent storm and the remnants of the ice cap on the other side. With the sun about to rise, it was a most eerie place.

Finally the sun rose quickly behind cirrus clouds a good 1500 kilometres away out on the Indian Ocean.

At the summit - 5895m

With just a few steps to go I reached the summit, marked by two wooden poles with planks across it welcoming us to Uhuru, the 5895 metre high summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

From there I had the world’s most massive view, seeing the most substantial view that could be seen from anywhere on Earth – a good 16,000 square kilometres. The rising sun created a spectacular purple shadow of the mountain extending six hundred kilometres to the west.

I had conquered the summit, but now there was a long downhill ahead of me.

Related trek:
Mount Kilimanjaro

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14-18 August 2011


Mount Kilimanjaro




1100 - 5895m ASL


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